VIRGINIA BEACH — Finding a Navy SEAL in this city should be easy. This is where hundreds of America’s most elite warriors are based. This is where their heroic exploits are celebrated and retold, especially since a team of Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in a bold raid on the al-Qaeda mastermind’s Pakistani hideout.
But finding a real, active-duty SEAL in this beach resort — not to mention one of the 20 or so members of SEAL Team 6 who swept into bin Laden’s compound early this month — is like chasing echoes in a fun house.
Almost everyone has a military pedigree in this Navy town, so almost everyone claims to know a SEAL, a former SEAL or somebody else who does. After a while, you start thinking you see them everywhere, until you realize that even here, in the heart of SEAL country, all those years of speculation about bin Laden’s whereabouts have been replaced by a new post-Sept. 11 mystery: Where is the SEAL, or SEALs, who put the bullets in bin Laden? Someone has to know around here.
“They say they know who did it or they know someone who knows someone who did it,” said Carlie Kinzey, 18, a server at the Raven restaurant, which was a popular hangout for SEALs years ago when SEAL commando-turned-novelist Dick Marcinko’s daughter waited tables there.
Without fanfare, SEAL Team 6, as it’s popularly known, returned to its base outside this city last weekend after a congratulatory visit with President Obama. The Navy Times, citing unnamed sources, said the elite commandos — who actually go by the official name of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, or DevGru — are divided into four color-coded squadrons based at Dam Neck, Va. Of those, Red Squadron got the call because its 50 or so members, about half of whom were chosen for the raid, were on alert.
Since then, SEALs have become the object of almost feverish attention here, with many people feeling proud of their warriors’ heroics, protective of their identities and a little paranoid about the possibility of some al-Qaeda payback.
Even apparently well-grounded adults talk about the SEALs as the closest thing we know to comic book characters: They have superhuman powers to withstand cold, heights and fear! They have secret identities! They dive into the sea from submarines and leap from airplanes at 30,000 feet! They have cool zoomorphic job titles, like Spider-Man or Batman! They roll with the best high-tech gizmos and deadly toys! Even their trident insignia is snazzy! And such good manners!
“They could kill you with a straw 13 different ways, but they’re really nice,” said Allen Norfolk, 52, the manager of Chicks, a rumored SEAL hangout off Shore Drive.
Other supposed SEAL habitats include the Ready Room, Hot Tuna, C.P. Shuckers, Waterman’s Surfside Grill and, not so long ago, Guadalajara Mexican Bar on Shore Drive. Several seem no different than any seaside joint whose decor is a mix of contemporary American frat house and pirate ship: beer, monster-size burgers, NASCAR or ESPN on giant-screen TVs, fruity-slushy cocktails and some big, dead fish on the walls.
At one time the SEALs’ favored haunt was the Raven restaurant, which Hollywood commandeered for some scenes in the 1990 movie “Navy SEALs” with Charlie Sheen. On the walls are Vietnam paraphernalia and some framed pictures of ponytailed Marcinko and his “Rogue Warrior” series of books.
“We’re the original SEAL team hangout — I don’t know why,” said Bobby Dunnington, 64, who bought the Raven with his twin brother, Ricky, after a stint in Vietnam with the Seabees a few years after President Kennedy created the SEALs. Having seen a few, the Dunningtons say it’s possible to make a probable visual identification of a SEAL in public but trickier to get confirmation.
“They do not talk about business,” Bobby Dunnington said. “All they want to do is pick up babes.”
“You need to talk to their girlfriends,” Ricky Dunnington added.
Still, the Dunningtons and many other seasoned SEAL spotters say they can pick one out in a crowd by certain telltale signs. Chief among them is a buff, zero-percent-body-fat, V-shaped physique coated with tattoos, perhaps sprouting a beard or other facial hair to avoid attracting notice in Middle East war zones. But above all, SEAL watchers say America’s premier commandos give off an aura, a hint of swagger, as if the excess of self-confidence emanates from their bodies.
“You can notice the way they hold themselves — maybe a little cocky,” said Jennifer Bell, 31, a Navy corpsman from Stockbridge, Mich., on the USS Cole, one of the ships struck by terrorists several years ago. Scanning the bar at C.P. Shuckers on Saturday, Bell, who has been part of medical crews that treated SEALs, finds zero candidates.
But the trail heats up at Chicks, a dockside oyster house whose walls feature lots of photographs from hot spots around the world showing purported SEALs and other military personnel in CHX T-shirts with their backs to the camera.
Sweeping up after a busy night, Chicks employee Ali Snyder, 27, said a tattoo artist who inks a lot of SEALs told her that one of the team members who took out bin Laden is a Chicks regular, which seems plausible because a lot of them hang out there. “I have so many girlfriends who have dated or married them,” she said.
It’s wise not to be too nosy in some places, however, because asking too many questions about the SEALs raises alarms. At Hot Tuna Bar & Grill on Shore Drive, no one on staff wanted to talk with a journalist about their SEAL customers. When a young woman in a bachelorette party started talking about how five or six SEALs had visited the place on Cinco de Mayo, a manager rushed over to expel the reporter.
“In all honesty, they’re very much protected here,” said Wendy Crandol, 41, of Newport News, while sharing dinner with a friend at what used to be Guadalajara until a change of ownership. “Too many questions about them, you’re going to get beaten back. Mum’s the word.”
As if on cue, a couple eavesdropping from the next table butt in. They want to see some press credentials.
Except to say that they are military and have unspecified security clearances, neither the buzz-cut young man nor his date wants to identify themselves. But the young woman, her eyes locked on like radar, suggests that al-Qaeda terrorists might pose as journalists to find out what brand of floor cleaner the restaurant uses, obtain an identical container and fill it with a deadly biological agent.
Others express similar worries about SEAL Team 6’s home town being targeted.
“I’m all for what they did, but it’s, like, dude — it’s like putting a big target on Virginia Beach,” said J.D. Sanders, 36, a waiter at the Raven.
Of course, SEALs wouldn’t be SEALs if they couldn’t stay out of sight and keep a secret — at least until such time that their declassified derring-do can be revealed in books or screenplays.
“Sometimes the family doesn’t know,” said former SEAL Don D. Mann, 52, of Williamsburg, who spent more than 17 years as a SEAL.
Other retired SEALs say SEAL-spotting is an amusing, if ridiculously subjective and speculative, pastime.
“I’m not sure you can see someone and just feel the vibes,” said Dick Couch, 67, a former SEAL who lives in Idaho. He also finds the idea of SEAL hangouts dubious.
“If he’s a good SEAL, he’s probably with his family,” Couch said.
On Saturday night, as the Chicks bar begins to overflow into the dining room, an athletic-looking guy heads out with a lovely young woman at his side. His T-shirt is taut as a sail across his V-shaped torso, and there are flamelike tattoos curling from the sleeves.
“Are you a SEAL?” he was asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“Would you be willing to talk to The Washington Post?”
“No,” he said.
“Are you really a SEAL?”
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.